Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ain't Talkin' Bout Talent

What makes Tiger Woods so consistently great? How does Eddie Van Halen make his fingers fly so effortlessly up and down the fretboard? What is it that allows an iCon like Steve Jobs to rock the business world? Where does Oprah find her power to connect with everyone from Mandela to welfare moms?

Are these folks just born with a "certain something" the rest of us don't and will never possess? In other words, how much does natural, innate talent figure into any success equation in any field of human endeavour?

Whether it's the pursuit of artistic or academic excellence or competing in the arenas of athletics or business,the good news is the lack of a natural gift is irrelevant - talent has little or nothing to do with achieving greatness. Scientific experts are producing remarkably consistent findings that help us understand raw talent doesn't mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It's an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. However, British-based researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda have concluded that in virtually every field, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.

My research on this topic led to a conversation with a long-time friend who scouts amateur hockey players for a living. He takes in more than 200 games a year to see if he can discern the less than 2% who have the the potential to make a living at playing Canada's national sport. In fact, I can recall him telling me about an 11-year old kid named Crosby that he felt had the tools to make it one day.

He prepares more than 600 individual scouting reports, entered into into his employers database to help determine who gets selected at the annual NHL entry draft. Nine specific skill areas are evaluated, then carefully compiled and cross referenced by a dozen of his scouting counterparts - 7 in North America - 5 in Europe - before top prospects are further assessed using a battery of physical and psychological testing. The NHL team he works for is widely considered to be among the top 5 in the league when it comes to allocating resources towards ensuring quality decisions are made on draft day.

In my friend's words, "Talent and skill just gets you noticed. The minor leagues of hockey are full of skilled guys; there are guys in the NHL with less skill but more will". In his opinion, elite athletes are no different from the top performers in business or patients who conquer cancer. "They play like their next shift is their last".

Before hanging up, my friend and I agreed that by and large, raw talent accounts for maybe 10% of what it takes to be truly successful at anything. The biggest success factors will always be discovered in the intangible areas of coachability, passion and courage - stuff that is so damn hard to measure, yet essential to performing at a high level. In his best-selling book "Talent is Never Enough", John C. Maxwell (no relation) explores this theme further, and today on The Seamless Brand, dispenses a number of nuggets that help us grasp the concept of how little God-given talent factors into any success equation.

Don't think you have enough talent to succeed?

Don't sweat it.

Just be prepared to start sweating by doing the heavy lifting required to achieve your full potential. Professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University published a landmark paper on the talent equation in 1993 based on consistent observations about great performers in many fields. Ericsson and two colleagues focused primarily on sports, music and chess, in which performance is relatively easy to measure and plot over time and concluded:

"There is no substitute for hard work".

There is vast evidence that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule. And as John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University observe, "The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average." In many fields (music, literature) elite performers need 20 or 30 years' experience before hitting their zenith.

This scholarly research is simply evidence for what great performers have been showing us for years. To take a handful of examples: Winston Churchill, one of the 20th century's greatest orators, practiced his speeches compulsively. Vladimir Horowitz supposedly said, "If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three days, the world knows it." In basketball, Michael Jordan practiced intensely beyond the already punishing team practices. (If Jordan was such a natural , it seems unlikely he'd have been cut from his high school team.). Today, Jordan's equivalent is found in Pittsburgh where Sidney Crosby pushes himself to extreme conditioning levels. As for Tiger Woods, he was introduced to golf at an extremely early age - 18 months - fell in love and practiced intensively, so much so that Woods had racked up at least 15 years of practice by the time he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship, at age 18. The greatest of them all in his sport (and possibly the greatest athlete ever) never stops trying to improve, even remaking his swing twice. We're talking about Tiger spending thousands of hours on the practice range with his swing coaches, hitting hundreds of thousands of golf balls.


What is the equivalent to hitting golf balls in your field?

In other words, can you see something in today's post that translates to the world of business, overcrowded with average performers, who by and large just do what needs to be done to get through the day? What hidden talents do you see in yourself or others waiting to be forged on the anvil of excellence through the hammer of hard work? How often do you see people with talent, hit life's inevitable bumps in the road, and conclude they just aren't gifted and give up? Are we life-long hostages to some naturally bestowed magic dust or can we make ourselves what we will (providing there is a kernel of talent to work with)?

Could any success equation depend primarily on lonely work; the buckets of balls one is prepared to hit?

Is there anyone in your world with less skill but more will?

"There's a plaque on our wall that says we've sold over 65 million albums, and I don't feel I've accomplished anything. I feel like I'm just getting started" EDDIE VAN HALEN


Darren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darren said...

Sometimes it seems safe and easy to do that which you and others would agree 'you are good at' versus that thing you know 'you'd like to become good at' - today's post inspires me to keep working on the things that don't come easy...

Ken LeBlanc said...

Gair ... you nailed my philosophy on life = WILL over SKILL wins every time!!!!

Mike Shanks said...

If you get a chance check out Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Restaurant.

It seems to speak to this rather well.